What Happened When the Young House Love Couple Tried to Escape the Internet

Escape From the Internet!
John and Sherry Petersik built a cult following with their website, Young House Love. Then they tried to walk away.
Photographs by @younghouselove

The rebellion began a little after 10 a.m. on a Thursday in September 2014.

At precisely 10 a.m. on almost every weekday for the past seven years, Sherry and John Petersik had uploaded a chatty, photo-laden post to their do-it-yourself home-décor blog, Young House Love. During those nearly 3,000 posts, they catalogued kitchen renovations, decorating projects, moves to three different houses, and the births of both their children. Readers of YHL, as it’s known to their millions of fans, knew an absurd amount about the Petersiks’ lives, including the brand of shampoo the couple shares (Burt’s Bees) and the fact that Sherry owns only one bra.

For years, the Petersiks had appeared to delight in the oversharing, letting no vacation, birthday, or parenting milestone go un-blogged. But they had recently started to chafe under the microscope. In Instagram photos, the Petersiks’ friendly grins seemed to be hardening into tragicomic Greek masks. They approached every blog post or Facebook status in a defensive crouch: What would get the most likes and shares? What would trigger a backlash? There was no escaping the onslaught of feedback, positive or negative. The ceaselessly churning, real-time response machine of the internet never sleeps — and, especially since the birth of their second baby earlier that year, neither did John and Sherry.

In recent weeks, the Petersiks had been chronicling the overhaul of their home’s laundry room, and today, fans were anticipating the big “reveal.” But John wasn’t done installing the baseboards or the under-cabinet lighting, and Sherry hadn’t hung art or shot any “after” photos. Questions about the delay were already popping up on Facebook. So while John nailed and caulked upstairs, Sherry sat at her laptop in their white and turquoise-accented office and scrolled through unanswered emails and comments. A debate had broken out about their choice of countertop, so she wanted the new post to make readers finally understand how the wood counter played with her wood picture frames, storage baskets, and clothespins. And also, Sherry thought, it’s my damn laundry room. But she couldn’t figure out how to explain it all. So instead she hopped on the previous day’s post — a drapery giveaway titled “It’s Curtains For You!” — and wrote: “Update: We hoped to have a Thursday post for you guys, but it didn’t go as planned. So sorry!”

By the time John came down to lunch, comments were pouring in; most were unkind: “Honestly, 5 posts a week isn’t that much for readers to expect …” wrote one. “You make big bucks from this blog (I have no problem at all with that) and IT’S YOUR JOB.” Others defended the Petersiks’ time and talents. The post ultimately got just under 2,000 comments.

That weekend, after the kids were in bed and the laundry room was finally done, they started talking about putting a match to this thing they loved so much. Sherry was ready to quit right then, but John wasn’t convinced. The YHL brand was their primary income. “I wanted us both to calm down. And I wanted to know what our next move would be.” They both made lists of old freelance clients from their days in advertising who might take them back. It felt terrifyingly uncertain, but also, liberating. In a perfect metaphor for the moment, John’s laptop promptly died.

The next morning, while John rushed his computer in for life support, Sherry published an announcement. “We felt this shift from ‘John and Sherry’ to ‘Young House Love: The Brand’ [and] the blogosphere as a whole has become increasingly sponsored/corporate lately,” she wrote by way of explanation. Almost immediately, 5,348 comments began to roll in: “Ignore the jealous people.” “Are you breaking up with us? :(” And the refrain: “We’ll be here when you come back!”

The next month, they logged on again, to publish a farewell post. “We thought it would be nearly impossible to click off that urge to over-share this past month,” they wrote. “But it actually felt just right.”

The Petersiks have always portrayed their success as uncalculated and even accidental: “Oh man, I wish we had done a business plan at the beginning, because that would be hilarious to read now,” says John. We’re sitting on their covered back porch on a muggy May afternoon, and I’m perched in a wicker egg chair — the arrival of which was heralded by a 1,225-word blog post in 2014 — which is slightly surreal for me. I followed the Petersiks for six years of their online adventure, stumbling onto Young House Love when the Petersiks were still in their first Richmond ranch house, and my husband and I were buying our first home and realizing the limitations of our own DIY abilities. At first I winced at its humble-cute tone — they waxed poetic about decorating their Christmas tree with homemade citrus-fruit ornaments — but eventually I succumbed to the charms of their pun-based post titles (“Oh My Gourd” chronicled the purchase of a squash-shaped lamp; “Hosta La Vista” documented landscaping adventures) and their other verbal ticks, like their partiality for colors that are “moody” (used 124 times) or “glossy” (used 358 times), and their way of ending posts with “so there you have it” (210 times). “I am fully aware that I’m obnoxiously enthusiastic,” Sherry wrote in a 2012 post. “I’m the less cool version of that adorkable Zooey Deschanel.”

Even as my love for them became increasingly less ironic, I remained suspicious that their success could really all be so disarmingly uncalculated. “But how could we have had a plan when nobody had ever made money off a blog before?” says Sherry when I push on the business-plan question. It’s true that when the Petersiks got into this game in 2007, there was no Instagram, no Vine, no Periscope. Twitter and the iPhone were in their infancy, and having an aggressive social-media presence was not yet seen as a viable career path. It’s hard to overstate how quickly this world has evolved and how completely we’ve come to accept its central tenets. Anyone with a social-media presence now understands the lure of more posts, more followers, more shares. Which means that both the Petersiks’ rise and their decision to walk away offer a preview of a world in which maintaining the appearance of our lives online can make it impossible to actually live that life. And yet, even knowing what they know, the Petersiks can’t quite leave it all behind.

The Petersiks met in 2004 while working at the same New York City ad agency. Sherry was a recent FIT grad from New Jersey. John was a clean-cut Southerner with a surprisingly dry wit. They began dating in 2005. Early on, they flirted with various paths to public life, auditioning together for The Amazing Race — “I still think John would have killed it,” Sherry says — and trying to sell a book about weird pet names. But despite entertaining visions of reality-show stardom “for a hot second” — they also decided to leave New York for Richmond, attracted to its slower pace of life and affordable real estate. “Looking back, that’s kind of the first time we made a big, dramatic decision in the name of a more balanced life,” John notes.

The blog started as a way to share progress reports on their first kitchen renovation with family and friends. Four months later, they entered a home-improvement blogging contest and won the $5,000 grand prize. The Petersiks joined Google AdSense soon after their contest win, making $10.59 in the first month. By the end of that year, the blog was up to 100,000 page views per month and had become the bulk of Sherry’s work life, a transition she describes as “a big leap of faith,” since it would be another year before she began to duplicate her old salary. The early posts on YHL have a distinct MySpace vibe, with small, badly lit photos. In one, Sherry wrote about buying John a new suit and a poster for his birthday, without including a single photo of either gift.

Their earnest blend of self-deprecating humor and raw enthusiasm turned out to be insanely attractive to readers. By 2009, YHL had reached one million page views per month. When their daughter, Clara, was born in 2010, monthly traffic was up to 2.5 million. John quit his advertising job. The couple looks back on that time as the blog’s golden year, when they were essentially getting paid to live their life and talk to a group of friends about it every day.

By the next year, Sherry’s narrative of Clara’s traumatic birth had elicited 2,385 comments. But even John’s far more prosaic account of choosing between three bath mats sparked a 338-comments-strong discussion. The Petersiks soon joined the first wave of bloggers who leveraged their personal lives for real-world success. They landed a two-book deal, a Benjamin Moore paint-color collection, and a line of whimsical hooks shaped like octopuses and Chihuahuas for Target. During a 20-city tour for their first book in 2012, the Petersiks spoke to crowds of 600 to 800 per night. Fans showed up at book signings wearing homemade T-shirts, dressed as “Blazer Sherry” (an inside joke about the black blazer that Sherry always wears for public appearances), or bearing cupcakes decorated with Petersik family faces. Pieces of fanmade art are still displayed throughout their house.

But as the social-sharing economy expanded, so did the Petersiks’ business, which is when that happy setup started to break down. Grace Bonney, the creator of Design Sponge, points to shifts like the rise of Pinterest and Instagram, which, she says, “have all but killed blogs. We all have homes, we all talk about the pretty things we want to buy; that’s not unique anymore. The only thing that sets us apart is who we are and what our lives are.” Bonney explains, “You will not find a single blog with that kind of cult following that doesn’t have a personal connection. But what creates that kind of devoted following can also be problematic. At some point you have to ask: Do you want your life to become your business?”

By 2011, YHL was getting over 5 million monthly page views (with a million unique visitors), and the Petersiks were regularly working a second shift after Clara’s bedtime and throughout weekends and vacations. Family outings had to include something “bloggable,” like a stop at an antique store. Each holiday required fresh seasonal content. The Petersiks were also picking up all those side projects that felt like huge wins, but required a tremendous amount of additional work. They admit the blog made money “a nonissue” in its final years. “For a long time, we thought we were doing okay if we could duplicate our salaries from our old advertising jobs; then it got to the point where we could bring in much more,” says Sherry. “But I kept saying, ‘I don’t want more money, I want more time.’” She’d spend school field trips sneaking onto her phone to respond to comments from the zoo or the aquarium. “I felt like any day where I was being a great blogger, I was being a bad mom and vice versa,” Sherry says. She and John both worried that their marriage was being reduced to “essentially co-workers.” By this time, the Petersiks had entertained — and refused — at least 50 offers from reality-TV-show producers, many of which were designed to play up their sex appeal. “They would be like, ‘We see John using power tools with lots of sawdust blowing around and then you’ll be bringing him water,’” Sherry says. “I get that from the outside, it looks like we were chasing fame, but that kind of thing was never our goal.”

Meanwhile, their audience’s demands to be let in on their lives only grew. Back in 2010, it took them four days to mention the birth of their daughter on their blog, but when Teddy was born in 2014, John says, “It was like, okay, we have a few hours to get something for Instagram.” Sherry pauses when he says that, but she doesn’t disagree. “Where we ended up was kind of a reality show in itself,” she says. And like all successful reality stars, the Petersiks had built an audience that simultaneously knew everything about them and didn’t really know them at all.

In person, John and Sherry aren’t nearly as cloying as their blog makes them seem. “The internet flattens you,” says Sherry. They talk intelligently about competing-blog business models and the rise of sponsored posts. I hear them both drop F-bombs. During my visit, Sherry wears the same outfit (Target black T-shirt, Old Navy skinny jeans) twice. When we sit down for lunch, it’s at their rather famous reclaimed-wood pedestal table (made by Restoration Hardware, but found for 70 percent off at an outlet store). “I’m hoping it will be one of those hand-down-to-your kids pieces that outlives John and me,” Sherry blogged about the purchase in 2013. When I compliment it, John hints that it’s unlikely to survive their upcoming kitchen renovation: “We’re kind of over it.” Then he passes around avocado sandwiches, tossing us paper napkins and bags of chips. (They have since sold the table.)

That night, back out on the covered porch, we start talking about overexposure, and they struggle to put into words how it felt to live so publicly for so long. The metaphor they settle on is, naturally, that of a house: “It’s like we left the curtains open in one room,” Sherry says. “And of course, we knew we were being watched in there. We made choices about what we’d say or do in that room.” But over time, they shared more. “It’s like we were opening other curtains throughout the house.”

John jumps in: “Well, and also, it was like that one room was getting bigger. People saw into that room and thought that was the whole house.”

“Right!” Sherry takes it back. “It feels like, oh that’s all you did today? Because I’m not telling you that I was volunteering at school, or the baby has an ear infection.”

“But then it tempts you to open more curtains, so you can give that context,” says John. “And then it’s like, now I have all of my windows open.”

As the blog became more successful, the scrutiny, along with a righteous sense of what the Petersiks “owed” their audience, intensified. “I bought you your house,” one reader told them in the blog’s final months. John and Sherry don’t blame their audience for blurring the lines between blogger, customer, and best friend. “We did this,” says Sherry and gets a little teary when she says it. “We put ourselves on the public stage, and then we realized it wasn’t where we wanted to be.”

They also worried about the effect living online was having on their kids. “I’m already afraid of what Clara will find when she Googles herself,” Sherry admits. “I wonder all the time if we should have changed her name or never shown her face at all.” What Clara will find is not that different from what many new parents share on their social-media accounts — except in the Petersiks’ case, it inspired threads on hate sites like Get Off My Internets. Once, when Clara was out for ice cream with her grandparents, a fan recognized her and approached the family. “It was perfectly friendly and innocent, but it weirded us out to realize Clara could get recognized without us there,” says John. After that, they made sure Clara always wore shorts under dresses, in case somebody snapped a picture of her upside down on a jungle gym. “The internet can be a dark place,” says Sherry.

The Petersiks spent the first year post-blog working a mix of freelance advertising gigs.  Altogether, they say their income is roughly half what it was in the blog’s heyday. Meanwhile, a Young House Love hardware line has popped up at Home Depot; some of their designs have even been tested in stores without the YHL label. “We were stunned that anyone would even think that’s an option,” says Sherry as she shows me plastic prototypes of forthcoming items. “We thought for sure they’d say you’re nothing without your blog. It starts to feel like your audience is all you are.”

A few weeks after my visit, Sherry asks me to call. “We just want to make sure it doesn’t sound like we’re never going to blog ever again,” she says when we get on the phone. “We don’t plan to, so we don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. [The internet] will never again be 100 percent of our existence. But if it fuels our brand in a way that works with our life, we’re open to it. We’re not business idiots.”

In September, the Petersiks released the second installment of their two-book deal: Lovable Livable Home. When we talk before its release, they seem legitimately shocked that their publisher hasn’t dropped them after they stopped blogging. In the lead-up to the launch, I began to see an uptick in their social-media shares: six Facebook posts in August, a dozen more in September. That same month, they updated the blog with a single post highlighting some of their adventures over the past year. The post ends with a video spoof of John and Sherry pretending to be Real Housewives. I can’t help but overthink that choice — is it a deliberately ironic statement to cast themselves as reality-TV stars? Or meant more as a callback to their blog-nerd roots?

In the months since, there have been three more updates, all about the kind of mundane home projects (think landscape lighting) that made fans fall in love with the Petersiks in the first place. The new posts are friendly, but there is a distance. Projects are only posted as a final, finished “reveal”; we’re no longer watching every coat of paint dry. And the site’s comments have been disabled. Readers can still comment on the Young House Love Facebook and Instagram feeds, but the conversation is far more muted.

I talk to the Petersiks again just before they leave for their book tour. Lately, John tells me, they’ve been wondering if they might be able to maintain an online audience without letting that audience rule their lives. I ask if they think they could have reached this new middle space without the dramatic blog exit last October. “Absolutely not,” says Sherry. “People are excited to see us back in any capacity; it would have been impossible to generate this enthusiasm if we had just dialed things down.” The Petersiks don’t know whether anyone will continue to care about them now that their house and lives have ceased to be our communal property, but they seem happy inside their new boundaries. “We’re not pretending that we’re coming back in a big way; they’re not pretending that they’re supporting our whole family by reading the blog,” says Sherry. “For so long, we lived in fear of everyone leaving us. We’re less desperate now.”